Outside-the-box Thinking Leads to Success in El Salvador

In 2008, a technical outerwear factory in Canada with shrinking profit margins in its domestic operations decided to open a manufacturing facility in San Salvador, El Salvador, where:
  • Wage rates were similar to China
  • Experienced employees were available
  • The time zone was similar to most of North America
  • Flying time from most North American cities was approximately five to eight hours
The full-package Canadian apparel manufacturer’s objective was to establish a high-quality technical fleece outerwear manufacturing facility. Its products are labor-intensive, with the labor minutes ranging from 35 to 90 SAMs per unit and averaging 50 minutes per unit.
The company started in a free trade zone in San Salvador, which offered benefits such as a tax-free status and no duties under CAFTA. It devoted a significant amount of time to locating a suitable building, hiring a management team, and ensuring compliance with the appropriate El Salvador laws. It also hired a supervisor to evaluate prospective plant operators.
The manufacturer established strict quality requirements, mandating in-process inspections and a final quality audit report documenting the findings of the MIL-STD-105-based audit.
The company originally planned to hire line, upper management and technical managers from the large pool of available experienced workers in El Salvador. Many textile and apparel manufacturing factories had closed in El Salvador, essentially flooding the market with skilled personnel. The company focused on finding experienced people to fill important positions such as production manager, purchasing/product development manager, line supervisors, and administrative manager, but there was little success in recruiting suitably qualified employees for these roles. The manufacturer began to resort to hiring employees who were turned away by other companies.
Then management considered the somewhat unusual idea of hiring people for their potential to succeed on the job and not based solely on industry experience, which was considered helpful to reduce the learning curve, but it was not the only criteria. The same idea was pioneered by a North Carolina doctor 20 years prior; tasked with establishing a new cardiology team at a growth-oriented hospital, he identified suitable personnel with the potential to succeed and trained them on the technical requirements of their roles.
If the company was to think outside the box for its management positions in El Salvador, it would need to establish a formal talent assessment process. Following are examples of innovative thinking and approaches to building and coaching the new team to success. The management and technical team would include Production manager, CAD operator, purchasing/product development manager and line supervisors.
Production manager
Who would imagine a taxi driver being tapped for training for the production manager’s position? But FermÍn ChÉvez is not your stereotypical taxi driver. He drove for his father’s company, the largest taxi service in the city. He lacked apparel industry experience but had completed two years of college, was good with computers and demonstrated excellent interpersonal skills. After eight months on the job, ChÉvez still is in training but is rapidly learning to handle the tasks of production manager.

In a new company, management often must be trained to multi-task. A production manager must demonstrate the ability to:
  • Work with computers
  • Maintain a work-in-process schedule, rapidly changing quality and specification standards
  • Calculate staffing and line balancing with a high number of small lot styles       
  • Understand machine details and production needs
  • Oversee the training of production employees
  • Utilize human relations skills to give day to day directives and to solve interpersonal conflicts
CAD operator

A second example of ‘thinking outside of the box’ was the selection of a CAD operator.

A directive from head office required that a CAD operator be hired and the system be up and running within one month. The company was unable to find a suitably experienced worker so they hired an architect, Sandra Duque, to set up and manage the CAD system. A slow building market found Duque between assignments and the prevailing expectation was that an employee capable of designing buildings using a CAD program could transfer those skills in short time to the CAD system geared toward apparel manufacturing.
Transferring CAD architectural skills to the apparel system required some training. The Canadian company’s CAD operator spent a week at the San Salvador factory teaching Duque the basics. Additional assistance from local CAD operators helped her to make excellent progress.
The company also wanted to establish communication between the Canadian trainer and the new San Salvadoran CAD operator. A public IP address system enabled markers to be created and sent to the Canadian trainer for a quick critique,  thus preventing a major mistake during the training period.
Pattern maker
Ultimately, the goal is for the CAD operator to multitask by creating patterns and then making the markers. Pattern making requires a long training curve and until this skill is added to the team, the company will rely on a contract pattern maker.
Purchasing/product development and customer relations
The team in San Salvador brought a former school teacher/banker on board to work in purchasing/product development and customer relations. While Zoila Rivera’s primary career had been in the teaching and banking fields, she had also previously worked in apparel manufacturing. Her prior experience significantly reduced the learning curve.
The Canadian purchasing manager initially set up the purchasing procedures. Training from the Canadian operation helped Rivera to move quickly and successfully into the new role. A missed purchase of an item so seemingly insignificant as a hang tag can stop a shipment of a 2,000 lot order until it can be made, or brought into San Salvador — sometimes a FedEx process of up to four days. The results: the invoicing would have to wait until the order is ready to ship.
Rivera’s success in purchasing made the way for her to take on more responsibility: product development. In this role, much of her time is committed to:
  • Working on specifications from customers
  • Having patterns made from drawings
  • Sourcing materials
  • Having samples made
  • Coordinating delivery dates with the manufacturing team
Line supervisors and assistants
Line supervisors in each area are imperative for manufacturing, which makes experience essential in these roles. Once an applicant is accepted, s/he is required to demonstrate capability through one or two months’ industrial sewing machine production.

The supervisors are trained to:
  • Review operator efficiency and excess costs which are used for establishing the selling price and incentive system of the product.
  • Change the layout of machines for improved work flow with each new style.
  • Train their assigned operators
  • Read detailed specifications (in English) and then follow the specifications.
  • Check quality in the line.

Gene Barbee is a professional engineer registered in Canada and an international consultant with projects in the U.S., Canada, and Asia, Africa, and Central America. A graduate of NC State University, he is an adjunct professor at the school and was a visiting lecturer in the College of Textiles for four years. He can be reached at
[email protected].
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